Local man builds new standard in Moab for energy-efficient, affordable housing

Self-built home is among the area’s most environmentally friendly

Aaron Thompson, a Utah State University instructor with a home-building pedigree, poses with a PHIUS+ certification in front of his family’s new house as his youngest daughter looks on. The house is the first in the valley to be certified as a passive building, setting a new standard for energy efficient building in the valley. Photo by Carter Pape

Local resident Aaron Thompson has set a new standard for building sustainable housing in Moab. He recently completed construction on and moved into a new house for his family in Spanish Valley, achieving one of the country’s highest standards for energy efficiency.

The kicker is that Thompson’s single-family, 2,460 square-foot house cost only $100,000 to build.

“This is affordable housing,” Thompson said recently during a tour of his family’s new, energy efficient home. The market value on Thompson’s new house — just below the area’s $440,000 median, according to data from the National Association of Realtors — becomes all the more impressive when considering the innovation packed into the building.

The house is a dream come true for Thompson, who said he has looked to build a passive house for his family for years. It comes with highly-effective insulation that comprises a four-inch thick coating around the exterior of his house, a state-of-the-art ventilation system that constantly fills the house with fresh air from outdoors, insulated floors that heat bare feet even in cold months, and to top it all off, accreditation that the house meets one of the world’s most stringent set of standards for energy efficiency: Passive house certification — specifically, PHIUS+ Core Certification.

Thompson, who has a background as a homebuilder, built his house with his own hands. He got a bit of help with the labor from friends and family, and he paid for some assistance with finishing the concrete, applying the stucco and taping the drywall, but the bulk of the work he did on his own.

Having built the house himself, Thompson saved big on labor costs. As affordable as it was to build, though, the feat is also one of environmental engineering.

The house is airtight yet well-ventilated, positioned so sunlight streams in through windows to heat the house in the winter and stays blocked during the summer, wrapped in thick insulation and constructed with a roof that is twice as insular as that of a typical house.

Airtightness is one of the biggest keys that makes the house energy efficient, as it reduces the need for indoor heating and cooling. Even with doors and windows completely closed, a typical house leaks air through cracks in the thresholds of doors and windows, at the seams where floors and walls meet, around electrical outlets and dome lights, through carpeting and even through small holes in drywall.

Thompson’s house also leaks air, but he has sealed the house so well that the leakages add up to the equivalent of a credit card-sized hole. Compare that to the size of three pieces of letter-sized paper; a brand-new house of the same size as Thompson’s would have approximately that large a total leakage hole if built to modern building standards.

Most houses also do not have ventilation the way that Thompson’s house does. While Thompson’s whole-house ventilation system completely replaces the indoor air every 90 minutes with fresh air from outside, most houses have no active ventilation system; air only leaks in and out through cracks, circulating when a window or door opens, never consistently being replaced.

But how does the ventilation system, which is always on, always pulling air from outdoors inside, not freeze the house in the winter? With energy recovery ventilation, a technology that essentially swaps the air from inside a building with the air outside the building, swapping the temperature of the two air streams in the process.

According to Thompson, though, the house is best appreciated in person. As such, he is planning an open house to allow residents and builders in the Moab Valley to tour the house and see with their own eyes what he has achieved with hopes that some of the energy efficiency strategies might spread to new houses around Moab.

Thompson has not yet settled on a date and time for the open house, but he says he plans to publicize the plans when they are final. In the meantime, he encourages curious homeowners, builders, architects and others to contact him to see the house or ask about it by calling 435-260-8946 or emailing [email protected].